Everyone needs to visit Northern Ireland. It is something I tell anyone who is considering a city break or even a weekend away.
Anyone who does knows there is so much to do. Whether it is a shopping trip to Belfast city centre, a Game of Thrones tour, the Titanic museum, the famous black taxis tours, or just a weekend of eating out, drinking Guinness and enjoying the legendary craic. Bottom line is a trip to Belfast is a guaranteed good time.
Sadly, I am continually surprised by how few people from where I live in Scotland have actually made the short journey across the Irish Sea.
It is more surprising still because travelling to Northern Ireland from Scotland couldn’t be easier. You can take the Stena Line ferry from Cairnryan, either as a foot passenger – which is fantastically good value – or with your car – which allows you the freedom to travel freely when you arrive in Belfast. There are also a number of flight options, but my favourite mode of transport is the boat.
Arriving at the ferry terminal has become even easier after the opening of a new bypass on the road from Ayr and once you are there, you already feel like you are on holiday.
The boat has loads of entertainment on board, from bars and cafés to a cinema, gaming stations and a soft play area for the children as well as more chilled areas for those looking for a bit of peace and quiet. Despite it being just a two-hour 15-minute sailing, you can even book a cabin for a quick snooze or head to the spa to relax in the hot tub or get your nails done.
Every time I come to Belfast (and it is a lot because it is where I grew up), I do a lot of the activities mentioned above. So it was a joy to discover something totally new to do in this city I know so well.
We were staying at the Culloden Hotel & Spa Resort, a five-star hotel which is set in the leafy suburb of Cultra, near Holywood and just 10 minutes’ drive from the Stena Line ferry terminal. The hotel was built in 1876 as a mansion house before it became the official residence of the Bishop of Down, Connor and Dromore, and arriving at the Culloden, you can really sense the history and grandeur of this fabulous building.
Since being converted into a hotel, the Culloden has really grown and is now not just a hotel but very much a resort, like the type you find on expensive all-inclusive foreign holidays.
There is an extensive modern spa and wellness area at the rear of the hotel that offers relaxation and excellent gym facilities. In fact, we noticed a steady stream of locals coming and going to exercise classes or to use the sauna and steam rooms.
In front of the hotel are beautiful mature gardens that sweep down towards Belfast Lough.
If you take a walk down this way you could be forgiven for getting waylaid at the Bollinger Champagne Garden at the foot of the garden. On the beautiful late-summer weekend we visited, sitting in the sun sipping on some bubbly, you could be forgiven for thinking you had been transported to the lush lawns of Wimbledon.
But we had a reservation at the Cultra Inn, which sits at the foot of the gardens looking back up on the grand Culloden House. The Cultra Inn styles itself as a traditional Irish pub and bistro but, on entering, the place is deceptively large, with exposed wooden beams high above in the vaulted ceiling. The restaurant put me in mind of a large Alpine-style cabin restaurant, the type of thing you would see at the top of a European ski run, which was perfect for our cosy dinner with friends.
The food was excellent. In fact, the sriracha boneless chicken thighs with blue cheese ranch dip were so good I had to return the next day for a second portion.
At this point we had barely scratched the surface of what is on offer at the Culloden. Our visit coincided with the Art & Soul festival, an art and sculpture fair which saw Gormleys art gallery take over the hotel and install 280 works by some of the biggest names in international and Irish art.
Gormleys director Gerard Gormley took us for a guided tour of some of the incredible, towering sculptures on show by renowned artists including Patrick O’Reilly and Paddy Campbell in the gardens. Inside, there were works by none other than Banksy and Damien Hirst.
One of the best things about the festival was meeting and chatting to other people as they wandered through the hotel, quietly awed by the stunning art on show. It really brought an energy to the hotel that I have never quite experienced before.
We stayed in the gorgeous Belfry suite right at the top of hotel. From here you can see right across Belfast Lough and down into the city centre. As night sets in, I watch boats sail in and out of the port, the low hum of huge tankers sailing by demonstrating that Belfast is still very much an industrial city. In between the gargantuan shipping boats, I see a Stena Line ferry heading towards the port. We haven’t even left the grounds of the hotel all weekend but it is a sad reminder that we will all too soon be heading back on the ferry and away from this gorgeous hotel.
P.S. Belfast stockbroker William Auchinleck Robinson JP commissioned the stone villa at Craigavad, Cultra in 1876. Named for his wife, Elizabeth Jane Culloden, it was designed in the Scottish Baronial style. Much of the stone was brought from Scotland by boat, landed at Portaferry, and conveyed by horse and cart to the site.
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